The Slant of the Union

Beijing Review | 作者: Guo Jinyue | 时间: 2015-05-04 | 责编: 李敏捷
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U.S. President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union Address set off a firestorm of controversy in the Chinese media after asserting that the United States, rather than China, should write the rules for the Asia-Pacific--the world's fastest-growing region. The annual policy address has a significant role in U.S. politics, reflecting a U.S. president's judgment of both domestic affairs and international relations. In the first 15 years of the 21st century, China-U.S. relations have undergone immense changes alongside changes in China's international standing--a phenomenon that has been frequently discussed in the presidential address.


These annual reports have reflected since the dawn of the new century that, in most Americans' minds, China's international status has upgraded remarkably while China-U.S. relations have taken on a more competitive edge.


For the two countries to foster a constructive partnership, the current sole superpower's most important task is to adjust its position in the increasingly competitive global economy while remaining cooperative enough to produce a mutually beneficial situation.


A changing narrative


U.S. attention on China's rise in recent years has continually evolved in terms of both tone and content. President George W. Bush, for example, noted the importance of China's cooperation over the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and anti-terrorism. From 2003 to 2007, Bush stressed in each annual address the need to cooperate with regional countries for the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.


In 2003, the United States identified regional countries with a stake in the North Korean nuclear issue in a specific order: South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. But in 2007, the order changed, with China coming first as Japan, Russia and South Korea followed. During this time period, as the host and main active party of the six-party talks, China began playing a more crucial role in the settlement of the issue.


Since entering the new century, the 9/11 attacks have inflicted by far the bluntest trauma on U.S. society. After the incident, China stepped up and provided all requested assistance to support the U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. Against this new backdrop, Bush stopped referring to China as a "strategic rival" and turned to seek a "constructive and cooperative" China-


U.S. relationship. In the 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush said, "America is working with Russia and China and India, in ways we have never before, to achieve peace and prosperity."


Since 2008, clean energy has occupied an important place in the yearly presidential address. In the last big speech of his term, Bush proposed creating a new international clean technology fund to help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. Obama acknowledged shortly after taking office that China had made historic advances in the fields of clean and renewable energy. As early as 2007, the Chinese Government introduced a medium and long-term energy plan making hydropower, biomass energy, wind power and solar energy the major fronts of China's renewable energy development.


Although Obama pledged that the United States would not be left behind by China in the clean energy field, China's total installed solar and wind power capacities have reached 109 gigawatts, compared to 78 gigawatts in the United States. Data from Bloomberg's New Energy Finance report showed that China's investment in clean energy in 2014 hit a record $89.5 billion, far more than the U.S. $52 billion and eclipsing China's 2004 clean energy investment of just $2.4 billion.


Shifting gears


In addition to clean energy, Obama has also expressed "jealousy" of China's modern infrastructure. In his State of the Union Address in 2010 and 2011, Obama repeatedly pointed out that China is home to the world's fastest train as it strives to build speedier transportation networks and newer airports.


At the end of 2008, to minimize the negative effects brought about by the global economic crisis, the Chinese Government introduced a comprehensive stimulus plan to promote infrastructure construction featuring a large number of express ways, railways, bridges, subways and new airport terminals. China has also vigorously promoted the global outreach of its equipment manufacturing industry.


In contrast, U.S. infrastructure is aging and deteriorating due to inadequate maintenance. Since assuming office, Obama has made efforts to boost the U.S. economy and create jobs by expanding domestic infrastructure investment, but funding shortages due to the economic recession and budget deficits continually put a stop to his plans. According to Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic advisory firm, the United States needs a total of $8.2 trillion to invest in infrastructure construction relating to energy, transportation and water.


Employment and exports have been high priorities for the Obama administration from its outset, and both issues are relevant to China-U.S.


trade. In the 2011 annual address, Obama told the audience that new trade agreements with China will boost employment in the United States. This positive signal for China-U.S. trade relations, however, was dampened the following year when the president repeatedly pointed at trade litigations with China over its perceived "unfair" trading practices.


Since 2009, China has been the world's largest exporter. Meanwhile, the United States has for years been China's second largest trading partner. However, as China's trade surplus with the United States widened in recent years, U.S. interest groups have put more pressure on the U.S. Government, resulting in a higher degree of China-U.S. trade friction. In 2009, the Obama administration imposed a three-year "safeguard" restriction on Chinese tires, which led to a 60-percent slump in Chinese tire exports to the United States.


The divergences over trade between the two countries have already had an impact on the rule making of multilateral trade arrangements. Due to the deadlock of the WTO Doha round negotiations, many bilateral and regional free trade talks have emerged. In the Asia-Pacific, the United States launched the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations with 11 countries, and in the Atlantic Ocean region, the superpower kick-started the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiation. If the two proposals are implemented, the world's trade rules and industrial standards would undergo big changes that could reshape global economic and political norms.


China, despite being the world's second largest economy, has been excluded from both U.S.-led negotiations. Nevertheless, China and 15 other regional countries including ASEAN countries launched the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations. During the APEC economic leaders' meeting held last November in Beijing, leaders also approved the roadmap for APEC to promote and realize the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.


The continuous rise of the Chinese economy has long been a cause of alarm within the United States. In the 2006 annual address, Bush warned, "In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India, and this creates uncertainty, which makes it easier to feed people's fears."


The United States is looking to the East to draw better experiences from China and India in terms of education. In the annual addresses in 2010 and 2011, Obama noted that nations like China and India are starting to educate their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science and investing in research and new technologies. "Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer," Obama said.


Nevertheless, Obama seemingly restored national confidence in 2012 by making a compelling argument that the United States is a better place to invest than China. In the State of the Union Address that year, Obama said that "it's getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive." The same narrative went on in his 2014 and 2015 addresses. In the 2015 address, he accused China of writing the rules for the Asia-Pacific, and used the issue as a pretext to urge the U.S. congress to endow him with trade promotion authority. This political narrative, which reflects a growing sense of anxiety in the United States toward China's rise, may create a short-term win for the Obama administration--but only at the potential cost of long-term damage to Sino-U.S. relations.


The author is an assistant researcher with the China Institute of International Studies

 (Source:Beijing Review, updated April 18, 2015, NO. 8 FEBRUARY 19, 2015)